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|Cover artist||Ross MacDonald|
Of Mice and Men is a novella written by author John Steinbeck. Published in 1937, it tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in the United States.
Steinbeck based the novella on his own experiences working alongside migrant farm workers as a teenager in the 1910s (before the arrival of the Okies he would vividly describe in The Grapes of Wrath). The title is taken from Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse", which reads: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley". (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.)
While it is a book taught in many schools, Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for vulgarity and what some consider offensive and racist language; consequently, it appears on the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century.
Two migrant field workers in California on their plantation during the Great Depression—George Milton, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie Small, a bulky, strong man but mentally disabled—are in Soledad on their way to another part of California. They hope to one day attain the dream of settling down on their own piece of land. Lennie's part of the dream is merely to tend and pet rabbits on the farm, as he loves touching soft animals, although he always kills them. This dream is one of Lennie's favorite stories, which George constantly retells. They had fled from Weed after Lennie touched a young woman's dress and wouldn't let go, leading to an accusation of rape. It soon becomes clear that the two are close and George is Lennie's protector, despite his antics.
After being hired at a farm, the pair are confronted by Curley—The Boss's small, aggressive son with a Napoleon complex who dislikes larger men, and starts to target Lennie. Curley's flirtatious and provocative wife, to whom Lennie is instantly attracted, poses a problem as well. In contrast, the pair also meets Candy, an elderly ranch handyman with one hand and a loyal dog, and Slim, an intelligent and gentle jerkline-skinner whose dog has recently had a litter of puppies. Slim gives a puppy to Lennie and Candy, whose loyal, accomplished sheep dog was put down by fellow ranch-hand Carlson.
In spite of problems, their dream leaps towards reality when Candy offers to pitch in $350 with George and Lennie so that they can buy a farm at the end of the month, in return for permission to live with them. The trio are ecstatic, but their joy is overshadowed when Curley attacks Lennie, who defends himself by easily crushing Curley's fist while urged on by George.
Nevertheless, George feels more relaxed, to the extent that he even leaves Lennie behind on the ranch while he goes into town with the other ranch hands. Lennie wanders into the stable, and chats with Crooks, the bitter, yet educated stable buck, who is isolated from the other workers racially. Candy finds them and they discuss their plans for the farm with Crooks, who cannot resist asking them if he can hoe a garden patch on the farm albeit scorning its possibility. Curley's wife makes another appearance and flirts with the men, especially Lennie. However, her spiteful side is shown when she belittles them and threatens Crooks to have him lynched.
The next day, Lennie accidentally kills his puppy while stroking it. Curley's wife enters the barn and tries to speak to Lennie, admitting that she is lonely and how her dreams of becoming a movie star are crushed, revealing her personality. After finding out about Lennie's habit, she offers to let him stroke her hair, but panics and begins to scream when she feels his strength. Lennie becomes frightened, and unintentionally breaks her neck thereafter and runs away. When the other ranch hands find the corpse, George realizes that their dream is at an end. George hurries to find Lennie, hoping he will be at the meeting place they designated in case he got into trouble.
George meets Lennie at the place, their camping spot before they came to the ranch. The two sit together and George retells the beloved story of the dream, knowing it is something they'll never share. He then shoots and kills Lennie, with Curley, Slim, and Carlson arriving seconds after. Only Slim realizes what happened, and consolingly leads him away. Curley and Carlson look on, unable to comprehend the subdued mood of the two men.
In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.
Steinbeck emphasizes dreams throughout the book.[clarification needed] George aspires to independence, to be his own boss, to have a homestead, and, most important, to be "somebody". Lennie aspires to be with George on his independent homestead, and to quench his fixation on soft objects. Candy aspires to reassert his responsibility lost with the death of his dog, and for security for his old age—on George's homestead. Crooks aspires to a small homestead where he can express self-respect, security, and most of all, acceptance. Curley's wife dreams to be an actress, to satisfy her desire for fame lost when she married Curley, and an end to her loneliness.
Loneliness is a significant factor in several characters' lives. Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley's wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for—she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch, which causes Curley to increase his abusiveness and jealousy. The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got anybody. Don't make any difference who the guy is, long's he's with you." The author further reinforces this theme through subtle methods by situating the story near the town of Soledad, which means "solitude" in Spanish.
Despite the need for companionship, Steinbeck emphasizes how loneliness is sustained through the barriers established from acting inhuman to one another. The loneliness of Curley's wife is upheld by Curley's jealousy, which causes all the ranch hands to avoid her. Crooks's barrier results from being barred from the bunkhouse by restraining him to the stable; his bitterness is partially broken, however, through Lennie's ignorance.
Steinbeck's characters are often powerless, due to intellectual, economic, and social circumstances. Lennie possesses the greatest physical strength of any character, which should therefore establish a sense of respect as he is employed as a ranch hand. However, his intellectual handicap undercuts this and results in his powerlessness. Economic powerlessness is established as many of the ranch hands are victims of the Great Depression. As George, Candy and Crooks are positive, action- oriented characters, they wish to purchase a homestead, but because of the Depression, they are unable to generate enough money. Lennie is the only one who is basically unable to take care of himself, but the other characters would do this in the improved circumstances they seek. Since they cannot do so, the real danger of Lennie's mental handicap comes to the fore.
Regarding human interaction, evil of oppression and abuse is a theme that is illustrated through Curley and Curley's wife. Curley uses his aggressive nature and superior position in an attempt to take control of his father's farm. He constantly reprimands the farm hands and accuses some of fooling around with his wife. Curley's Napoleon complex is evidenced by his threatening of the farm hands for minuscule incidents. Curley's wife, on the other hand, is not physically but verbally manipulative. She uses her sex appeal to gain some attention, flirting with the farm hands. According to the Penguin Teacher's Guide for Of Mice and Men, Curley and Curley's wife represent evil in that both oppress and abuse the migrants in different ways.
Fate is felt most heavily as the characters' aspirations are destroyed when George is unable to protect Lennie (who is a real danger). Steinbeck presents this as "something that happened" or as his friend coined for him "non-teleological thinking" or "is thinking", which postulates a non-judgmental point of view.
Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck's first attempt at writing in the form of novel-play termed a "play-novelette" by one critic. Structured in three acts of two chapters each, it is intended to be both a novella and a script for a play. It is only 30,000 words in length. Steinbeck wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel.
Steinbeck originally titled it Something That Happened (referring to the events of the book as "something that happened" because nobody can be really blamed for the tragedy that unfolds in the story). However, he changed the title after reading Robert Burns's poem To a Mouse. Burns's poem tells of the regret the narrator feels for having destroyed the home of a mouse while plowing his field.
Attaining the greatest positive response of any of his works up to that time, Steinbeck's novella was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection before it was published. Praise for the work came from many notable critics, including Maxine Garrard (Enquirer-Sun), Christopher Morley, and Harry Thornton Moore (New Republic). New York Times critic Ralph Thompson described the novella as a "grand little book, for all its ultimate melodrama."
The novella has been banned from various US public and school libraries or curricula for allegedly "promoting euthanasia", "condoning racial slurs", being "anti-business", containing profanity, and generally containing "vulgar" and "offensive language". Many of the bans and restrictions have been lifted and it remains required reading in many other American, Australian, Irish, British, New Zealand and Canadian high schools. As a result of being a frequent target of censors, Of Mice and Men appears on the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century (number 4). In the UK, it was listed at number 52 of the "nation's best loved novels" on the BBC's 2003 survey The Big Read. Of Mice and Men has been challenged 54 times since it was published in 1936. However, scholars like Thomas Scarseth have fought to protect the book by citing its literary value. According to Scarseth "in true great literature the pain of Life is transmuted into the beauty of Art",. The book was once studied in English Literature GCSE, but was dropped because it didn't originate from Britain.
The first stage production was written by Steinbeck, produced by Sam H. Harris and directed by George S. Kaufman. It opened on November 23, 1937, in the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. Running for 207 performances, it starred Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie. The role of Crooks was performed by Leigh Whipper, the first African-American member of the Actors' Equity Association. Whipper repeated this role in the 1939 film version.
In 1939 the production was moved to Los Angeles, still with Wallace Ford in the role of George, but with Lon Chaney, Jr., taking on the role of Lennie. Chaney's performance in the role resulted in his casting in the movie.
The play was revived in a 1974 Broadway production in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre starring Kevin Conway as George and James Earl Jones as Lennie. Noted stage actress Pamela Blair played Curley's Wife in this production.
In 1970 Carlisle Floyd wrote an opera based on this novella. One departure between Steinbeck's book and Floyd's opera is that the opera features The Ballad Singer, a character not found in the book.
The first adaptation was in 1939, two years after the publication of the novella, and starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie, with Burgess Merh as George, and was directed by Lewis Milestone. It was nominated for four Academy Awards.
A TV version, produced by David Susskind in 1968, starred George Segal as George, Nicol Williamson as Lennie, Will Geer as Candy, Moses Gunn as Crooks, and Don Gordon and Joey Heatherton as Curley and his wife.
Another theatrical film version was made in 1992, directed by Gary Sinise, who was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Sinise also played George in the film, and the role of Lennie was played by John Malkovich. For this adaptation, both men reprised their roles from the 1980 Steppenwolf Theatre Company production.